UCL School of Management is delighted to welcome Arvind Karunakaran, MIT Sloan School of Management to host a research seminar.
How does the public’s use of smartphones and social media shape organizational accountability, and with what strategic consequences? I examine this question through conducting a 24-month ethnography, supplemented with historical and quantitative analysis, of an extreme case: 911 emergency management organizations (EMO). Findings suggest that in organizations that involve multi-stage coordination, and when the work of front-line professionals initiating the coordination require significant discretion in decision making, the public’s use of smartphones and social media to voice their concerns and demand more accountability can paradoxically end up worsening accountability. My study unpacks the processes that generate this paradox of public accountability – front-line professionals’ increased risk aversion, strained role relations, and resource lock-up. Specifically, I find that after a social media scandal about an EMO, the 911 call-takers of that organization evaluate and categorize significantly more incoming 911 calls (including the non-emergency requests) as legitimate emergencies: the average percentage of calls categorized as legitimate emergencies rose from 52% to 78% following a social media scandal, leading to resource allocation issues and a 44% increase in response time for higher-priority emergencies. Together, these processes bring forth a vicious spiral of coordination that worsens organizational accountability over time. Through a matched case research design, I then compare the role-assignment practices of two structurally similar EMOs facing the above challenges to delineate the importance of role-rotation in breaking the vicious spiral of coordination. This research generates insights into the ways in which accountability is being reconfigured through the shifting practices of front-line professionals responding to external pressures, and contributes to advancing our understanding of organizational accountability in the age of smartphones and social media. This study also highlights how the widespread diffusion of digital technologies in society is not just increasing the volume of information received and processed by organizations, but also affecting the way professionals within organizations coordinate to screen and sort information in the wake of external accountability pressures, and with what strategic implications.